Jessica Zelenski asked her Hillhouse High students to write a paper in defense of Mayella Ewell, a notorious character in To Kill A Mockingbird who falsely accuses a black farmhand of rape.
“I’m asking for some compassion for the girl; I didn’t say you had to like her,” she said when students protested.
The resulting discussion — as students found they had more in common with the poor girl than they expected — was featured in New Yorker staff writer David Denby’s book Lit Up, which hit shelves this month. In the book, featured this past week in The New York Times, Denby follows Hillhouse High School teacher Zelenski for a year, along with teachers in two other communities, to explore how star educators inspire their students to engage with serious literature.
That discussion took place two years ago, before seismic changes came to Hillhouse.
Zelenski’s dynamic teaching style was still on display during a visit to her honors English class this Thursday morning with a group of rowdy Hillhouse juniors. But some key differences in the way the school is now structured have made it harder for Zelenski to replicate the magic moments captured in Denby’s new book, 15 years after Zelenski started teaching at the school.
For one, Hillhouse is now divided into four academies, including a new Social Media and Arts Academy (SMART) for freshmen starting this year and a College Career Readiness (CCR) Academy for seniors being phased out by next year. School teachers and students have been vocally critical of the way district officials handled the transition to the academy structure, especially this year. The Board of Alders is preparing to visit the school and hold a hearing into the changes amid public concern.
Superintendent Garth Harries sent a letter to the school community in January apologizing for the lackluster communication and coordination of the transition and proposing a seven-point plan to address existing problems. He attributed the decision to add two more academies in 2014 and the SMART academy this year to the fact that Hillhouse was still a “last ‘choice’” for students and parents, with increasing rates of drop outs. He and school leaders argue that academies break Hillhouse into smaller chunks where students get more individualized attention; the principals say they’ve made progress in addressing problems with the transition.
Back when Denby visited Hillhouse two years ago, the school did not have themed academies with their own administrators. Zelenski taught a total of 55 students in three classes scheduled five days a week. Last year, after the academy-system shift, she taught sophomores in the IDEA Academy and saw them half the time. This year, she teaches four English classes of close to 80 students, nearly all of IDEA’s juniors, whom she sees either two or three days per week.
“I was able to get so much done with lengthier assignments,” seeing students daily instead of biweekly, Zelenski said.
But that hasn’t stopped her from still inspiring her students, as a visit to her class confirmed. She continues to motivate students to take literature seriously and relate it to their own lives, the goal sought by Mayor Toni Harp in promoting a campaign to make New Haven the “city that reads.”
“Who Left The Water Running?”
Thursday morning, Zelenski’s students were reading Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, a comedic play about a Jewish teenager dealing with his family and identity during the Great Depression.
Kids filed in sloppily, some still plugged into phones blasting music, until Zelenski sharply ordered the devices away. She handed out a couple of yogurts to students who were hungry. “They’re always starving because they’re kids,” she said.
Zelenski grew up in Wallingford and got her teaching certification in Boston before moving to New Haven. She was considering a job as a Fair Haven Middle School social studies teacher when she got called in to interview at Hillhouse. She said she had negative preconceptions of Hillhouse before walking its halls. “What do I have to offer?” she thought to herself, as someone who grew up in the suburbs. “But I came in for the interview and I loved it. It wasn’t what I thought. ... I was amazed by what a good fit it was.”
This year, her classroom is a large conference room with two doors that kids used to cycle in and out of, until she blocked one off.
“I have a sink,” she said in a tone of disbelief. “Why am I saying stuff like, ‘Who left the water running?’”
IDEA Academy Principal Fallon Daniels said administrators prioritized spending on technology for the classrooms and other immediate resources last year. They built a lab with manufacturing equipment to prepare students to enter the industry after graduation.
“We recognize that the classroom is very large. Is building a wall a priority before getting new textbooks?” Daniels said. “We’re planning now for new walls.”
She first met Zelenski last year when she became principal of the academy. Zelenski’s strong teaching skill is “asking higher order questions” so that students have to “apply their knowledge,” Daniels said. “We continue to build on that” across the department.
“I Only Read For Her”
Zelenski challenges students while acknowledging their varied interests. “She didn’t protect them or condescend to them by giving them easy assignments ... Jessica Zelenski combined literature and ethical inquiry. The students were entering a forbidding economy; they needed to be armed with the intellectual and moral strengths that would enable them to succeed — or at least survive,” Denby writes in his book.
“Would you rather do rhetorical analysis or read the play?” Zelenski asked her students at the start of class Thursday.
“Read the play,” many called back.
Zelenski chose Brighton Beach Memoirs, a funny play with a 14-year-old protagonist named Eugene, so the kids could relate. Throughout the class, as they read aloud, she asked them questions that pushed them to make comparisons between the text and their lives.
Camron Joyner said he could relate to the characters in Brighton Beach Memoirs, despite the large time gap and major difference in cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
In the first act, Eugene shifts his parents’ attention onto his brother, who has secretly lost his job, to get out of eating a despised piece of liver for dinner.
“I used to do stuff like that when I was little,” Joyner said. His older brother told him secrets and Joyner passed them along to his mother, though he knew he shouldn’t.
Zelenski had Joyner’s brother as a student when he was in high school. Joyner took Zelenski’s English class last year as a sophomore and signed up again this year as a junior.
Last year, he was a “knucklehead” who didn’t pay attention to class and “started off on the wrong side,” he said. Zelenski “explained to me how powerful I could be,” Joyner said.
“I only read for her,” Joyner said, nodding toward his teacher.
“He says that, but I think he’s lying,” Zelenski said.
Joyner is one of few students who bring back multiple drafts of assignments to her, seeking repeated feedback on edits, she said.
She pulled out his “motor mouth” personality trait and directed it toward class debates, he said. “I love to argue.”
“Why Does He Say ‘Colored’”
After reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God earlier this year, the class debated whether or not individual black people need to uphold their images in order to avoid representing negative stereotypes of the race. Joyner got so excited he started to feed arguments to the other side. “They were missing one point,” he said.
White culture often “tries to steal some of our culture,” he said. Often, aspects of black culture generally looked down upon are praised when adopted into white culture. He tried to hold up the class through lunch to pitch his closing argument.
Zelenski pushed students to understand the ethnic and racial dynamics in the context of the play, different from the ones they encountered in New Haven. In the play, one character Stan, a Jewish man, describes the way his boss, a German man, mistreated a “colored guy who sweeps up” in the shop.
“Why does he say ‘colored’?” Zelenski asked.
“Because it’s the 1930s and he’s black,” one student Matt Brehon called out.
In Lit Up, author Denby visits the homes of some of the students, sees some of their struggles firsthand.
“[A]t Hillhouse, the African American students didn’t openly claim the privilege of being individuals. Mere survival came first, before selfhood and ‘journeys.’ And for Hillhouse students ‘society’ was not so much a hostile abstraction as a blank, something so little known that it was hardly mentioned,” he writes in the book.
Heaven Anderson, a self-described avid reader outside of class, said Thursday that Zelenski makes personal bonds with the students and knows what they’re going through outside of school. She talks them through their problems instead of kicking them out of class.
Unlike a guidance counselor, “she will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear,” Anderson said. She was having tense interactions with some of the other girls in the school; Zelenski talked her through it.
Disorganized, Divided School
Zelenski gave students parts in Brighton Beach Memoirs to read aloud in class Thursday. Anderson said she pegged kids based on personality. Anderson likes to take charge, so she got the part of Kate, the overbearing mother in the play.
Tyriq Woodson played the main character Eugene, who instigates some of the drama between his family members and wryly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience in between lines. He read his part smoothly, switching up his inflection to reflect his character’s mood and intentions. His goal, he said later, is to get into acting.
Woodson is a good student, who is also described in Denby’s book as an “extraordinary fifteen-year-old” with “ravenous curiosity” in Zelenski’s tenth-grade English class last year.
Some students think Zelenski is harsh, Woodson said. But they’re misguided. “Not every teacher cares” like she does, he said. “She’s not going to allow you to fail.”
He was less enthusiastic about Hillhouse’s academy system. He expected to be able to take classes in entrepreneurship and other “exciting things” when he chose the IDEA academy his freshman year. Instead, it’s disorganized and divided, with few opportunities that interest him.
Zelenski said the biggest challenge with the academy system is the difficulty of meeting and learning from teachers in other academies. Lauren Cianciulli, who teachers juniors in the Law, Public Safety and Health Academy, popped in to sit in on Zelenski’s class Thursday.
Zelenski said she misses learning from Cianciulli, who is “good at tying things up with detail…We don’t have time to meet with each other.”
Her students are a handful and she spends a lot of time trying to keep their attention, by raising her voice, by calling out individuals, by zipping around the room. The biggest barrier between her and her students is not race or class but age. “They’re just regular kids,” she said.
Author David Denby is scheduled to appear at an event for the new book this Sunday, Feb. 28, at the Study at Yale at 1157 Chapel St. beginning at 2 p.m. The event is sponsored by R.J. Julia and WSHU.